Places, you hacks! Here comes the premiere of Deadline , a.k.a. Porno for Journos, the Dick Wolf-created, Oliver Platt-starring drama that some folks hope is going to give the newspaper biz its first big wet TV kiss since Lou Grant argued with Mrs. Pynchon and Rossi went out on assignment with Animal for the last time.
The self-aggrandizing media buzz over Deadline is particularly thick here in New York, where the NBC series is being filmed. Not since Opie Howard wandered into town with the script for The Paper in the early 1990’s have the city’s ink-stained wretches been so gaga over a Hollywood-born production. Egos were only stoked further when the enthusiastic, broad-shouldered Mr. Platt dined at Michael’s, scarfed hors d’oeuvres at an Inside.com launch party and researched his role with the gang at the News , among others. Elsewhere, bigfoot scribes, normally dismissive of Tinseltown, coughed up free advice to Deadline producers faster than a bad oyster–not because they were, uh, star-struck or anything, but because they wanted to ensure, you know, that the show had the proper verisimilitude .
The capper is that Mr. Wolf & Co. have secured the old New York Post headquarters on South Street to serve as Deadline ‘s set, giving the series a chunk of real Manhattan newsbiz cred. Tom Conti, who plays the publisher of Deadline ‘s fictitious tab, The New York Ledger , now occupies the former office of none other than Mr. Rupert Murdoch himself.
Meanwhile, icky, inside-baseball speculation has raged about the inspirations for Deadline ‘s cast of newsroom characters. Is Mr. Platt’s character, the larger-than-life, borderline-obnoxious columnist Wallace Benton, based on Jimmy Breslin? Mike Royko? Steve Dunleavy? Is Benton’s journalist ex-wife, played by Hope Davis, based on omnipotent showbiz writer Lynn Hirschberg? Is Conti, in fact, doing Rupert? Is Lili Taylor’s friendly gossip-society columnist based on … The Observer’s own Frank DiGiacomo ?
Such shameless buzz has a positive side, of course–you won’t find journalists yapping this much about the season premiere of Daddio , for example. But there’s an obvious double-edged sword to any program that dares to employ reporters as dramatic vehicles. While every group of professionals will nit-pick the way it gets portrayed in TV or film, no other occupation has such access to ink by the barrel. After all, as Mr. Platt himself acknowledged, Deadline ‘s success, to a certain degree, is going to depend “on how journalists react to it.”
Mr. Wolf, his usual cool-as-a-cucumber self, didn’t sound too worried. “Hopefully, members of the working press are going to watch it and only be marginally enraged by the way they are presented,” the Law & Order creator said. But Deadline ‘s executive producer and head writer Robert Palm, a former reporter himself, acknowledged that, yes, there has been some on-set worry about the way the drama will be received in media circles. “Some of us were kind of nervous and anxious–if we don’t do it right, they’ll skewer us,” he said.
Mr. Platt pleaded for journalists to give Deadline some elbow room. “This is not a docu-drama about the state of American journalism,” he said. “It just isn’t. It’s entertainment.”
But at the same time, it’s clear that Deadline is striving to be a little more realistic than, say, Just Shoot Me . “Do we want to get it right?” Mr. Platt asked. “Absolutely, just like I imagine the guys on ER want medical people to think there’s a certain degree of verisimilitude. Will we always? Of course not.”
Indeed, famously nitpicky journalism careerists may have a field day with Deadline ‘s premiere episode, in which Mr. Platt’s character, Wallace Benton, is introduced as some kind of Upper East Side tabloid superman–a trust-funded Pulitzer winner who writes a populist column, lives in a gazillion-dollar penthouse in Tudor City, dresses like a Barneys hostage, slugs Bushmills, verbally spars with his hottie ex-wife, teaches a journalism class and, oh yeah, finds the time to dig up, Scooby-Doo style, at the last possible minute, evidence to free a pair of convicted murderers on Death Row.
Still, Deadline has its moments. Whether it’s his frenzied job, his boozing or his suffer-no-fools obnoxiousness, Wallace Benton is enjoyably against-the-grain for a prime-time television protagonist. (“I don’t think he leads a terribly examined life,” said Mr. Platt.)
The supporting cast of Mr. Conti, Ms. Davis, Ms. Taylor and Bebe Neuwirth (who plays the Ledger ‘s sharp-tongued managing editor) is pretty dang accomplished, and while they’re not given much to do in the first couple of episodes, their roles apparently broaden in subsequent shows. And though Deadline ‘s first couple of plotlines are more Columbo -esque capers than journalism case studies, there’s enough attention to newsroom detail and lingo to make people in the chronically insecure profession feel at least a teensy- weensy bit loved.
As for the real-life inspirations for Wallace Benton, Mr. Wolf called the fictitious columnist “an amalgam of Mike McAlary, whom I knew, and Breslin, whom I’ve met a couple of times, and Murray Kempton and Jack Anderson and a sort of hodgepodge of all of them.” He added: “The worst mistake that I could make would be to try and do Breslin.” Citing his respect for the veteran columnist, he said: “Would this kind of journalism exist without Jimmy Breslin? Absolutely not. [But] I assiduously tried to avoid Breslin in my research, for the same reason I don’t want to watch All the President’s Men 100 times.”
Mr. Platt has taken some gentle ribbing for his recent ubiquity in New York’s high-profile media circles, even though it was done in the name of said character research. But he rejected suggestions that journalists have been sucking up to him. “I don’t mean to sound disingenuous, but I don’t see it that way,” he said. “I see it as these guys are being nice to me. First of all, through my brother [Adam, a food writer at New York magazine], I know a lot of these New York media types, and they’re being nice to me. Why does it have to be sucking up automatically?”
For his part, Mr. Wolf is mum on exactly whom he’s been huddling with in the Fourth Estate. “Various people have contributed anecdotes and insights that I never got a disclosure agreement for,” he said cryptically. “They are very forthcoming, but they know the power of background.”
If Deadline lives long and prospers (an open question because, among other things, the show’s 9 p.m. Monday time slot puts it up against Monday Night Football , Ally McBeal and Everybody Loves Raymond ), Mr. Wolf envisions a situation where real-life journalists might do cameos on the show once in a while. George Plimpton (surprise, surprise) has already filmed a scene at Elaine’s with Mr. Platt, and Mr. Palm said that producers eyeballed Pete Hamill for another episode, but the scribe had a scheduling conflict. “We’re hopefully going to have some prominent members of the Fourth Estate in the show playing themselves,” Mr. Wolf said. “I mean, that’s part of the fun. If the show catches on, we’ll probably be there [at Elaine's] with some more recognizable faces. If not, everybody will lose our number.”
Of course, interest from journalists alone will not be enough to sustain Deadline . With the media sliding down somewhere between N.F.L. referees and I.R.S. agents in opinion polls, selling Wallace Benton to Middle America could be an uphill climb. But Mr. Wolf believes there’s enough energy, conflict and dramatic glue in the news business to make the show work.
“Journalists are fascinating people because, for better or worse, you all fall within the 95th percentile of intelligence but are sort of traditionally underpaid, because you are doing something you really like to do–as opposed to doing something you have to pay people to do,” Mr. Wolf said. “At the same time, you are exposed on a daily basis to foibles and idiosyncrasies of people who are making a lot more money. So my take on journalists is that most of you guys are pissed off about that.”
Ouch! If you think that deconstruction stings, Mr. Platt pledged that future episodes of Deadline will probe one of the most delicate, unspoken truisms of the newspaper business–that for all their ego, blather and bluster, journalists are actually pretty thin-skinned folks.
“One of the most interesting things about journalists to me is that, for people who make a living out of kind of psychoanalyzing people and tearing them new orifices, they are extremely sensitive when the scrutiny is turned upon them,” Mr. Platt said. “And that, to me, is very, very interesting, and something we plan to harness.”
So Deadline ‘s starting to sound like a two-way street, huh? Journalists will take their shots, and television writers will take theirs.
“There’s a little bit of a no-win situation in terms of keeping everybody happy,” Mr. Platt said. “But I’m not going to lie to you and tell you I don’t care [what journalists think of the show]. Of course I care. I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I didn’t care.”
Tonight on WNBC, catch the real-life New York journalists who care on the Newschannel 4 News at 6 . Those TV guys make more money, but they don’t make Dick Wolf money. [WNBC, 4, 6 p.m.]
Thursday, Sept. 28
NYTV heard an intriguing story from a young Asian-American actress who had recently done some voice-over work for NBC’s schmaltzy Olympic coverage. The actress, who lives in New York, said she was hired to do voice-overs for a taped segment about a Chinese Olympian–when the segment showed the Chinese athlete speaking in her native tongue, the actress translated in English. But the actress was also asked to do the English translation with a Mandarin accent–a bit of a stretch, since the actress doesn’t normally speak with a Mandarin accent.
“I faked it,” said the actress, who asked that her name not be used.
And the NBC people were fine about that?
“Yeah,” she said. “They seemed to be fine. As long as it sounded like it was [Mandarin] enough.”
The actress said that she felt she did a pretty good job with the voice-over, even though she felt a bit creepy later.
“It’s a little offensive, you know, for her voice-over to have to have an Asian accent,” she explained. “That is a little strange. But more jobs for me!”
Calls to the NBC Sports office in New York were referred to the network’s Olympic headquarters in Sydney, which did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages by press time.
Tonight on NBC, more 15-hours-late, message-in-a-bottle coverage from the 2000 Olympic Games. [WNBC, 4, 8 p.m.]
Friday, Sept. 29
Tonight is the final night of Big Brother . If you have watched all 70 episodes of this thing, please now walk to nearest window, open, jump. [WCBS, 2, 8 p.m.]
Saturday, Sept. 30
On CBS, The Pelican Brief . In which Sam Shepard steps into a car, and the car blows up. That’s the highlight. [WCBS, 2, 8 p.m.]
Sunday, Oct. 1
Tonight is the final night of the 2000 Summer Olympics . If you have watched all 441 hours of this thing, please now walk to the nearest window, open, jump. [WNBC, 4, 7 p.m.]
Monday, Oct. 2
A final note about Deadline, which premieres tonight: The plot of tonight’s pilot episode revolves around the execution-style murders of five fast-food employees in a burger joint. In the show, two men commit the murders shortly after the restaurant closes. Mr. Wolf said the script for the pilot was written six months before the real-life May 24 Wendy’s massacre in Queens–in which two male suspects are alleged to have shot seven employees shortly after closing time; two survived. In fact, the Deadline pilot was shot in March, two months before the real murders.
Spooky, huh? Mr. Wolf, who said that he’s occasionally seen plotlines of Law & Order replicated in real life, sounded a bit weirded out by the Deadline pilot coincidence. “These things do happen, but of all the ones that have happened, the Wendy’s one was the most disturbing,” he said. [WNBC, 4, 9 p.m.]
Tuesday, Oct. 3
The 2000 Presidential Debates . Round one. Per order of the Bush camp, this debate is live from Kennebunkport, with a pie-eating contest, mandatory nap time and questions from panelists Arsenio Hall, Carson Daly and Rip Taylor. [WCBS, WABC, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and so on, 9 p.m.]